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Black-clad state police, wearing ski masks and brandishing nightsticks, apprehend an anti-establishment graffiti artist. It’s not exactly how you might expect the opening scene of an 18th century opera to unfold, but Opera Mcgill’s March 19 performance of Rodelinda defied expectations from its very first note to its last, though not always in a good way.
Rodelinda, composed in 1719 by Georg Friedrich Händel, is a rarely performed spectacle of a convoluted plot with larger-than-life characters. It’s loosely based on the events surrounding the usurpation and attempted assassination of Perctarit, king of the Lombards, in the 7th century. Since it’s hard to confine a medieval military coup to three hours of theatrical staging, Händel’s work focuses instead on the twisted yet decidedly human relationships between the parties involved.
Stage director Patrick Hansen was stumped by Rodelinda’s relative obscurity. In the director’s notes, Hansen wrote, “[ Rodelinda] is not as well known in North America as it should be. [...] I’m not sure why, as the themes and characters present in this opera are timeless and currently reflected in HBO’S Game of Thrones television series.” He cites violence, lust, obsession, and royal intrigue as common to both works. It should be noted, however, that Rodelinda is sadly devoid of dragons.
Throughout the production, talented opera students from Mcgill’s Schulich School of Music dominated the challenging, ornate vocal lines for which Baroque-era music is known. Stellar voices and acting skills, even in the context of the storyline’s melodrama, amounted to an impressive collective performance. Meanwhile, an orchestra hidden in the pit beneath the stage aced the trills and flourishes of Händel’s capering score.
The evening’s standout was countertenor Nicholas Burns. Hailing from British Columbia, the 21-year-old took on the lead role of King Bertarido with impeccable vocals and an enthralling stage presence. In Rodelinda, Bertarido has been deposed by the tyrannical Grimoaldo and presumed dead by his son Flavio and wife Rodelinda. But Burns’s arrival on stage midway through the first act made it apparent that the king, in fact, lives on.
Burns channelled the regal poise of a monarch and the pained urgency of a father and husband separated from those he loves, all encapsulated by a skillful voice rarely heard in a performer so young. Often, countertenor roles will be reassigned as “pants roles,” or male roles played by a lowervoiced woman, in absence of a male singer sufficiently capable in the high vocal range demanded of countertenors. Luckily for Opera Mcgill, Burns was more than capable, with a voice that could compete with the pros.
Soprano Lauren Woods in the role of Rodelinda was another highlight, depicting equal parts majesty and woe with a voice at once agile and nuanced. Woods performed with a gripping and elegant intensity, capturing the eponymous queen’s acts of mourning, loyalty, and defiance. Woods made her regal entrance in the first scene, wearing a swirling pink crown that would have made Effie Trinket jealous.
Despite the student performers’ display of utmost professionalism, the actual professional stage designers failed to hit the mark, resulting in a production that was visually interesting, but thematically half-baked.
The opera appeared to be set inside a dystopian Ikea: bare metal scaffolding, grey mesh columns, and, oddly, a chair suspended upside-down from the ceiling. The set amounted to an aesthetic that per- haps can best be described as “warehouse chic.” In his director’s notes, Hansen explained that he hoped “to create a minimalist expression” in which to frame the characters and their interactions, abstracting the plot to its most basic emotional core.
The look was, if nothing else, cool. The set was sleek and flexible, with movable pieces meant to signify scene transitions. But some conspicuous design flaws undercut the set’s success: as the orchestra struck its opening notes, outward-facing lights at the back of the stage nearly blinded the first several rows of audience members, while characters ducking around the mesh columns disappeared completely, though unintentionally, from the audience’s view.
And that chair – oh, that upsidedown chair. Characters would periodically stand off to the side of the stage and reach longingly toward the chair with outstretched arms. The airborne furniture, hanging awkwardly above stage left, was overtly symbolic of Bertarido’s contested throne, and more generally, of power and control. Pro tip: if your symbolism is overt, it’s not doing its job.
Throughout the production, bizarre currents of violent sexuality came into focus. Lust and desire are unquestionably central to the opera’s plot, but when a vengeful aria sung by King Bertarido’s sister Eduige (chillingly and charmingly portrayed by mezzo-soprano Emma Bonanno) turned into a choreographed BDSM ostentation alongside the scheming Duke Garibaldo (a role brilliantly sung by baritone Jean-philippe Mc- Clish), the effect was more comical than intense.
The sexual bent would have been more compelling had it examined or thwarted gender roles. Though the opera features two powerful women, Queen Rodelinda and her sister-inlaw Eduige, it fails the Bechdel Test, the set of criteria, usually applied to film and television, that evaluates how women are represented in media. The test asks whether a given work has at least two female characters who talk to each other about a topic other than any of the male characters. (For some perspective, Jessica Jones passes the test, while Daredevil falls short).
Rodelinda and Eduige score on the first and second criteria, but their sole interaction is about, you guessed it, men. This is to be expected of an opera written in the 18th century, but Opera Mcgill’s abstracted set and staging choices at first seemed to point toward a fresh perspective. Yet, even as Eduige takes on the domineering role in her BDSM aria early in the opera, this staging doesn’t carry through: by the final scene, she docilely agrees to wed Grimoaldo. Here, Hansen had the opportunity to stage Eduige’s betrothal through a lens of empowerment and agency, as a grab for monarchical power or a return to the earlier motif of intertwined dominance and desire. Instead, Eduige’s previous display of passion fizzles in favour of a conventional happy ending.
Even if these components had come together more persuasively, the fact remains that such a modernized take is hardly original. Opera directors are constantly reimagining and reinterpreting their repertoire, searching for innovative settings and unexplored nuances to reinvigorate a centuries-old genre. The question that directors must ask themselves is whether their updated version presents the opera in a way that doesn’t simply transplant the original, but transforms it. Does the staging interrogate the opera’s themes, or simply reroute them? Opera Mcgill’s vision for Rodelinda was on the cusp of achieving this interpretive metamorphosis, but fell short on multiple counts.
Fortunately, sublime performances shone where the staging faltered, with the Schulich School of Music’s brilliant students lending vivacity and passion to this final production of Opera Mcgill’s 2015-16 season.
The sexual bent would have been more compelling had it examined or thwarted gender roles.
Stellar voices and acting skills, even in the context of the storyline’s melodrama, amounted to an impressive collective performance.